Companies like Uber and Ola are popular in India because they provide an easy-to-use transport service. However, a large part of their appeal is the belief that the cabs that are associated with them are 'safer' than public transport or auto rickshaws.
As the recent rape of a woman in an Uber cab has shown, this is not really the case.
Cab companies can do a lot to provide basic security. Drivers can be required to check in periodically, their backgrounds can be verified and registered with the police; they can be hired and provided in-house training. And perhaps most importantly, their cars can be constantly tracked via GPS, and any deviations immediately questioned with radio.
One of the most important features in such security measures is the most obvious - drivers should not be allowed to simply vanish from the grid for hours at their will.
However, as the recent rape case has shown - this is precisely the freedom that the drivers of cabs hired via mobile apps like Uber and Ola have.
The set up for joining up with these services is surprisingly simple. Registered for-hire drivers are expected to fill in an application and provide basic papers - commercial licensing process, government issued IDs, state-issued permits and full commercial insurance.
Then the driver is given a smartphone, which he is expected to plug into the car via the lighter socket.
The GPS of that phone, which is used to pick up passengers and measure trips, is the only way that companies like Uber track their drivers. The simple way to get around this is to switch off the phone. That would make the driver and his car untraceable.
This is precisely what the driver in the Uber cab rape did.
Uber has released statements about how the company is co-operating with the police. And they have provided details of the driver - 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Yadav - to the police. The police are currently on a manhunt for him. But there is still no clarity on how that driver was chosen to work for the company, and whether there was any background check, or verification done by the company.
The company's hiring process seems to suggest that they will hire anyone who has a car and a license.
This is how the business model works. Places like Uber or Ola do not own any of the cars or personally hire the drivers. These companies merely act like middlemen between those who already have cabs and the passengers. Drivers, who have cars, register themselves as available for the service, and are just given the phone and the branding of the company. The rest is quite literally up to them.
Older cab companies like Fasttrack and Meru actually own the cabs they provide. They even have safety features like panic buttons and constant GPS tracking.
Whether Uber could have prevented this rape through security measures is debatable. But the fact remains that a multi-billion dollar company like Uber which is well aware of the state of sexual violence in India actively took no steps to provide even the most basic level of security for its passengers.